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New John Dickson book asks: is Jesus history?

'Is Jesus History?' poses important questions for both the faithful and non-believers

John Dickson's new book 'Is Jesus History?' was launched at Ridley College on 11 March.

By Stephen Cauchi

April 2 2020 

The latest book from Anglican academic and historian the Revd Dr John Dickson, Is Jesus History? – an apologist work written for non-believers as well as Christians – was launched at Ridley College on 11 March.

Ridley College principal the Revd Dr Brian Rosner, who launched Is Jesus History?, said the “deliberately ambiguous” title reflected two questions posed by the book.

It asked, firstly, if Jesus’ existence was rooted in historical evidence and, secondly, if Jesus was relevant in modern times, he said.

“People still ask the question, can we be sure that Jesus even existed? Is the New Testament reliable?” said Dr Rosner. “Is Jesus out of date, obsolete, irrelevant? What’s the relevance of Jesus for today?”

Dr Rosner said the 196-page book made it clear that Jesus not only existed but was entirely relevant for the 21st century. The book was “mature … concise and punchy”. 

The book quoted freely from the Bible but also from other ancient sources, he said.

“John sets you up beautifully with the historical information about the other messiahs who were going around in the ancient world, the way in which information was passed on in the ancient world.

“And then when you read the New Testament selections again, they come across in this wonderfully fresh and compelling manner.”

Dr Rosner added that despite the scholarly content, it was also a “fun” book. “You’ll read about John’s necklace, John’s tattoo, and John’s strange eating habits where he offered to eat a page out of the Bible.”

Dr Dickson, who is a senior lecturer in Public Christianity at Ridley, had three great assets, said Dr Rosner. Firstly, “He’s a genuine historian, he loves the ancient world.” Secondly, “he’s a public Christian. He’s an evangelist, an apologist”. Thirdly, “he’s a seasoned communicator, and loves to think about how best to persuade and communicate the gospel message”.

The book was also meant to be passed on to non-Christian friends and family members, said Dr Rosner. “It’s an excellent gift, it’s not a cringy Christian book in any sense. It’s the kind of book you could give a friend and feel confident about them not rolling their eyes as soon as they open it.”

Dr Dickson told the launch that he “wanted to write a book that you could hand to your mate who doesn’t believe, who thinks there is nothing credible to it”.

A key way of doing this was stressing that history was what differentiated the Christian faith from other belief systems, he said. 

“Our faith didn’t happen in an imaginary battlefield like the Bhagavad Gita, it didn’t happen in the Dreamtime, it didn’t happen in the mythical Greek time,” he said.

“We say our guy was crucified by the fifth governor of Judea. We’re making an historical claim. Our guy went from this town to that town. He paid taxes. He met Pharisees and Sadducees. We are saying stuff that is real-world stuff,” he said.

“It’s a period for which we have quite a lot of archeological and literary data.”

Dr Dickson said that, in recent years, academics such as German theologian Jens Schroter and American historian Dale Allison had offered fresh insights into New Testament history and testimony.

“I wanted to deal with the latest research, the latest approach … I wanted to deal with some of the philosophical questions – what does it mean to trust a piece of testimony?

“That’s what the gospels are – they’re testimony.”

Dr Dickson said that he once became friends with a New South Wales magistrate who had become a Christian after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

“He eventually said to me one day, ‘I’ve been reading and assessing testimony for all my professional life. And there is no way these gospels are made up. This is good testimony,’” said Dr Dickson.

“He died with a deep trust that if Jesus was raised then he would be raised.”